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Spray Painting at the World’s Biggest Science Experiment

From a FitRec installation to adorning CERN


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In the video above, Josef Kristofoletti’s mural of the ATLAS detector comes together on the side of the Redux Contemporary Art Center in South Carolina. Kristofoletti (below) at work at CERN. Photo courtesy of Claudia Marcelloni

Standing in a cherry picker, wearing a hard hat, a gas mask, and a safety harness, Josef Kristofoletti removed a can of spray paint from his boiler suit. He depressed the nozzle, but nothing came out. Too cold.

Geneva’s early winter weather put him behind schedule, and realization set in: he’d have to return in the spring to finish his mural depicting the ATLAS detector, one of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiments at the international physics research center CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire).

Kristofoletti (CFA’07) is familiar with the challenges of creating public art. On campus, it took a year for his mural Sneaker Mountain to go from a proposal written in Site Specific Art class to finished product on the wall at the Fitness and Recreation Center track.

“A mural is not like a painting that can be taken down easily,” he says, “so administrators were apprehensive.”

Because of the collaborative and risky nature of experiments at LHC, safety is a priority. More than 1,700 scientists from 159 institutions in 37 countries work on the ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) experiment, including BU’s Jeremy Love (GRS’08,’10), part of a team of BU physicists attached to the experiment. It took a month in Geneva to receive work permits and safety training to gain access to equipment, such as an aerial platform. And Kristofoletti couldn’t ship paint from the United States, so he had to research reliable European varieties.

“I built a 10-week timeline, assuming I would begin working in week one, but half of my time in Geneva was spent getting started,” he says. “I finished only one of the mural’s walls.”

Further complicating the project was Geneva’s apartment vacancy rate of less than one percent. Worried he wouldn’t find a place to stay, Kristofoletti made calls. “Hugh O’Donnell, my Site Specific Art professor, contacted International Programs,” he says. “Since BU has a study abroad program in Geneva, they provided me with student housing. It seemed the project would happen after all.”

Flash back two years
Kristofoletti and a handful of art school friends traveled to Alaska in a beat-up city transit bus retooled to run on waste vegetable oil. Their mission, self-titled Transit Antenna, involved finding artistic inspiration, while providing some along the way.

In South Carolina, Kristofoletti created a mural of the ATLAS detector on the side of the Redux Contemporary Art Center in Charleston to coincide with last year’s launch at CERN, along with other artwork that blends art with science.

“The LHC is captivating, because it uses apparatuses so huge to find things so tiny,” says Kristofoletti. “Particle physics — science on the scale of a fraction of a proton — is hard to wrap your head around. As an artist, it’s my job to get at the invisible and present complex ideas in a way people can understand. Michelangelo accomplished that at the Sistine Chapel, painting the creation story.”

Symmetry, a magazine devoted to particle physics, published an article about Kristofoletti’s Redux mural. “When CERN saw it,” he says, “I was invited to submit a proposal to create another mural of the ATLAS detector at their site.”

Before starting, he did some scouting. He was escorted 100 meters underground, into the cavern of the LHC, which took more than 20 years and $10 billion to build and is enclosed in a 27-kilometer concrete tunnel that crosses the border between Switzerland and France.

Passing through a high-security checkpoint, where retinal scans identify visitors, he came face-to-face with ATLAS — his inspiration — the largest of the detectors searching for the Higgs boson, extra dimensions, and particles that could make up dark matter.

“The first thing I remember was the smell of metal,” says Kristofoletti, “Then I became paralyzed, because of the size. It’s huge. Being in Switzerland, I compared it to the Alps, the sublime.”

Kristofoletti’s mural-in-progress is positioned at the gateway of CERN, where the ATLAS detector resides; all visitors entering CERN pass by it.

With a simple grid structure, he began translating a small-scale sketch into a large-scale mural, focusing on two of the building’s tall walls. Inspired by high-energy physics, he selected bold colors to represent the detector’s elements.

He will return this spring. “A French scientist recited a proverb that gives me hope: ‘In May, you can do anything.’”

Back in the United States, Kristofoletti is focused on his newest project: “My wife and I are having a baby.”

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.


One Comment on Spray Painting at the World’s Biggest Science Experiment

  • Jeremy Eugene Moore II on 02.22.2010 at 3:45 pm


    I love the spray painting…

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